A Postcard from Marc Chagall to Sholem Asch

Dear ones,

It is raining, pouring, bucketing. What kind of world is this? Nevertheless, life is good.

Yours,

Chagalls

***

This light-hearted postcard greeting was sent by Marc Chagall to Sholem Asch and his family in 1926. The Chagalls were holidaying in the newly-fashionable ski resort village of Megève in the French Alps; Asch and his family had moved into a handsome villa with a walled garden in Bellevue, outside Paris, a short while before.

The two families had moved to Paris at roughly the same time in the mid-1920s and they were bound by close ties, especially among the women. Asch’s wife, Madzhe, and Bella Chagall were good friends, and their daughters, Ruth Asch (my grandmother) and Ida Chagall were even closer. Holiday postcards from Chagall were a regular source of amusement in the Asch household. One card, written in Russian, read simply: “Zdravstvuite / zhivyem / Shagal” (Hi, we are alive, Chagall).

The relationship between Asch and Chagall had a rather different character: they were regular acquaintances over three decades, but many of the stories about them suggest the wariness of two big beasts rather than genuine warmth. And yet, Chagall drew portraits of both Sholem and Madzhe Asch in the 1920s (a pensive one of Asch, and a surreal caricature of Madzhe, now part of the collection of the reopened Sholem Asch House Museum in Bat Yam, Israel). But Asch, a keen collector of paintings by Jewish artists, never owned a major work by Chagall. The reason, according to critic Chil Aronson, was simple: Asch had hoped to acquire a painting for a rock-bottom price, explaining to Chagall that it would inspire him to write great works of Jewish literature. Chagall, reluctant to let the painting leave his hands, had proposed a swap for some choice Judaica from Asch’s collection. And there the matter had ended.   —David Mazower